Christian theology, ministry and the Bible are complex topics that can be studied using various approaches at Conrad Grebel University College (Waterloo, Ont.), whose master of theological studies (MTS) program offers students three distinct paths to complete their degree: course work, applied studies and thesis.
The thesis pathway is structurally very different from the other two pathways. In the first half of the thesis program, students engage in courses while gathering resources and ideas for their thesis. The second half of the program is devoted to researching, writing and reviewing their thesis: a 120-page research paper in a specific area of interest.
Most students choose the course work or applied studies path for their MTS degree, but Colin Friesen and Lindsay Ralph want to pursue further education. The thesis pathway allowed them to explore what a PhD might look like. A thesis can be one way to demonstrate the excellence in research that is required to be admitted into a doctoral program.
“I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was getting myself into, and build the skills necessary if I wanted to pursue a PhD in the future,” Friesen says.
“A thesis requires an interesting combination of research, analytic and writing skills,” Ralph says. “I had a fairly busy life outside of my full-time schooling, and the thesis option allowed for greater flexibility in when and how I went about doing my work.”
Researching and writing such a rigorous paper is not an easy feat and must start with a strong idea.
“I was encouraged to find an interdisciplinary topic and combine fields together,” Friesen says. “I decided to merge two of my interests together—video games and biblical interpretations—and analyze a video game that retells a biblical story.”
“I was reading a book for one of my classes and was suddenly confronted by the fact that most, if not all, constructs of ancient women were formulated by men since only ancient male author's documents survived,” Ralph says. “We know very little about how ancient women actually lived, thought or spoke. I wanted to apply that idea to the Bible and examine how biblical authors, who were all men, wrote about women, specifically mothers. I came across Galatians 4:19, with Paul metaphorically identifying himself as a mother, and the rest is history.”
“Hopefully, my thesis can act as some type of springboard for someone else to further explore the language biblical authors used, including gendered language, and look at further implications of that language,” she says.
Writing a thesis takes a lot of time, effort and motivation.
“A thesis is a multifaceted, complex project with many moving parts and a constantly changing target,” Friesen says. “I often felt intimidated by the size and scope of the project. I found that when I provided myself structure on a day-to-day basis, I gave myself more space to chip away at something so difficult.”
Although students who write a thesis only complete half as many courses as students in the other two pathways, thesis students continue to learn while writing their thesis but in a different context and through a different lens.
“A thesis allows you to get really granular into a topic that may have appealed to you in your classes,” Ralph says. “You get to explore and grab from different methodologies, concepts, authors, fields of knowledge and so on, some that you would have learned in class and others that you didn't get the chance to explore.”
Students work closely with an advisor, who looks over the thesis throughout the process and gives suggestions on how to improve. The students then make the revisions and it’s reviewed again. This can be a lengthy process, but also a unique one since they are continually improving and getting feedback on their work.
Once the advisor approves the thesis, it must be defended. In a thesis defence, the student presents their thesis and then the advisor and two readers ask the student critical questions about their thesis, research and area of study.
“To be honest,” Ralph says, “I don't actually know what I thought a thesis defence looked like. I knew I would be questioned about my work and I think I was quite nervous about that, but it was really fun to go back and forth with the readers. It was a really formative and helpful experience. That said, I was happy when it was over!”
Both Friesen and Ralph defended their theses online because of the pandemic.
“While it would have been nice to meet in person, there were some advantages to doing it online,” Friesen says. “Since many of my friends and family are from the West Coast, they were able to watch the defence online. It was so great to have my parents, siblings and close friends sit in and congratulate me afterwards.”